The Worst Bike Lane in the World?

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Looking north on Camino Pablo under Highway 24 in Orinda, California. Photo courtesy Bike East Bay

The title of this post may be a bit hyperbolic, but Orinda really deserves attention for this one-of-a-kind bike facility. As seen in the image above, a bike lane on Camino Pablo signals that bicyclists should go straight ahead—between two right-turn lanes that lead to a freeway onramp.

Yes, the right turn from the middle lane is optional—so there’s no guarantee that a bicyclist will be right-hooked by cars heading onto the freeway. And the lines marking the bike lane are dotted, not solid, implying that merging is allowed, so bicyclists ought to be aware. And that spot where the line goes solid at the top of the image? It seems to serve as a reminder to bicyclists not to turn right—so they don’t end up on the freeway.

But as for the “encouragement” value of the new lane…this bike lane is not going to encourage new riders to hit the road any time soon.

This project was meant to be an inexpensive solution to fixing a gap in the bike network. The underpass connects the Orinda BART station to popular bike routes in the surrounding hills. The street was slated for repaving, so city engineers decided to restripe it and add the bike lane. Beautifully buffered bike lanes lead to the underpass pictured above.

Across the street from where this photo was taken, there was no room for a bike lane, so Sharrows were added. Unfortunately, the Sharrows place bicyclists directly in the path of cars emerging from a freeway offramp.

Larry Thies, a city engineer who worked on the project, said the design was decided on after consulting with bicyclists who use the facility, and who currently ride where the lane is marked. “We thought [the striping] would bring more awareness by motorists to that area,” he said. “Before, there was no bicycle marking at all.”

The current solution is “not ideal at all,” he said. “We are working with Caltrans to eliminate the double onramp at that intersection. A lot of thought went into [the current design]. We are trying to better accommodate bicyclists in our community; we have a lot of commuters, but also recreational riders who ride through here, especially on the weekends.”

Local bike advocates at Bike East Bay and Bike Orinda had asked the city to convert the middle lane to straight-through traffic, thus eliminating the double right turn, and to add green paint to highlight the conflict areas, but those changes weren’t made.

Thies told Streetsblog, “We’re trying to improve it. Caltrans is very concerned about creating any backups from onramps onto city streets. The underpass is within Caltrans’ jurisdiction.”

“We are evaluating it. I’ve received some feedback from people who really like it this way; others think it’s a bad idea,” he said.

As for adding green paint to highlight the areas of conflict, Thies said, “We talked about it in a general sense, but aesthetically it would be a very hard sell in Orinda. We’re not Berkeley or Oakland; Orinda is a semi-rural community, and it’s not looking to make big changes. We’re not prepared to put green bike lanes throughout Orinda.”

In other words, it’s business as usual in this California city: car throughput and even aesthetics outweigh safety.

For Caltrans, this should be an easy call. With a stated goal of tripling bike mode share, the state transportation department should be willing to do whatever it takes to encourage new bicyclists—something that will not happen if bike lanes are like this one. As for concerns about slowing car traffic, that’s not necessarily a bad outcome.

Engineer Thies even pointed out that car speeds at this spot on Camino Pablo are different depending on the time of day. “During commute hours, with a lot of traffic, it slows down,” he said. “During nonpeak hours drivers are probably traveling 40 to 45 mph, depending where they’re going through this section.”

That is too fast for most bicyclists, especially potential bicyclists, to feel comfortable riding next to traffic.

“Eliminating the double right is probably the best step in the right direction,” said Thies. As for other traffic calming measures, “We already have quite a few signals through that stretch. And Orinda has a policy of no speed bumps on arterials.”

“The other option is a road diet. But it would be very difficult for me to propose that at this time. If you look at overall geometrics of that stretch,” he said, “it would be a very tough sell.”

Dave Campbell of Bike East Bay notes that some progress has been made since this lane was striped a few weeks ago. City engineers met with Bike East Bay and Bike Orinda, and have agreed to submit a project proposal to eliminate the second turn lane onto the onramp. That is, they agreed to propose that the work be included as part of the Measure J reauthorization. Measure J is a Contra Costa County transportation sales tax measure that will be on the ballot in 2016 and requires a two-thirds vote to pass.

Meanwhile Robert Prinz of Bike East Bay took some videos of what it’s like to ride here, in case the image above isn’t enough. You can see his northbound trip here, and his southbound trip here.

Prinz noted a few other interesting things on his ride. “Almost all of the northbound drivers heading to the freeway were choosing the rightmost lane, meaning that the middle right turn lane is extra unnecessary and that the Sharrows before that basically just end up backing up traffic while also endangering bicyclists. I was honked at by a driver while riding in the rightmost Sharrow lane, right on top of the Sharrows.”

  • I could certainly see that, especially since their modal share is in the 10% range. As such, the VC group is a less-prominent part of the total compared to here. However, I will say that there are two VC anti-infrastructure factions in America: those against all infrastructure (John Forester) and those who support them in concept, but not in reality. The easiest way to figure out which camp someone is in is to suggest that Cherokee Schill (or similar) would be better off with a parallel path to ride than with BMUFL signs.

  • Patrick Murray

    Some might say the second worst bike Lane in the world Is in Massachusetts. http://www.turnto10.com/story/29458456/plainville-town-official-says-new-bike-lane-is-unsafe

  • I know there was a push against mandatory use in Germany but from those I’ve talked to there they don’t really have a strident VC group like we do here. Those in Germany (and Europe?) who would typically be VC here are not against infrastructure but against poorly designed infrastructure. I agree with that.

    The U.S. VC culture OTOH is anti-infrastructure, especially any kind of protected infrastructure. Their focus is that people should all be taught to drive their bicycles and take the lane. They believe that all we need is education of cyclists and drivers, not infrastructure. They will say that they support infrastructure but then when it comes to it they’ll fight against protected anything. They’ll usually agree to recreational trails and sometimes to painted bike lanes if they can easily be exited to take the lane.

  • It should be noted that there are many instances where bike lanes are less safe than just telling bicyclists to take the lane or build a cycletrack. The Dutch found this out in research in the 80s. As such, many bike lanes, especially in California where engineers are so in love with sticking them in the paved shoulder (or in other words, the place were errant vehicles are supposed to recover before crashing) that they feel required to build, are prone to be worse than nothing.

  • This isn’t exactly true, the German VC crowd even got the court to agree that there can’t be mandatory cycletracks in Germany because German standards are generally rather inferior to Dutch. Also, basically everywhere in the Anglophone world beyond our borders has a decent VC push.

  • In other news, we’ve been able to obtain video of what bicyclists using this lane will encounter when they try riding it.

  • Dan Gutierrez

    We went to some trouble to preclude this type of bad design in the CAMUTCD, the CA traffic control (think striping) standard. See the lower image in figure 9C-103, which I John Ciccarelli and Bob Shanteau drew for the CTCDC (the committee that approves the standards for striping, signs and signals in CA). I crudely edited the photo to show what the standard looks like, and how that bike lane should have been striped as a single right turn lane.

  • Prinzrob

    Keep in mind that this street is signed at 40mph, with drivers commonly exceeding 50mph. “Sharing” the road can be a recipe for disaster in these contexts.

  • Prinzrob

    Agreed. “Vehicular cycling” should only be promoted as a means to cope with bicycle-unfriendly infrastructure, but never as an alternative to better accommodation.

    Hardcore VC proponents who oppose well-designed protected infrastructure or bike lanes seem to be dealing with some sort of Stockholm syndrome.

  • I hear that from people in Europe all the time, especially people in The Netherlands… 🙂

    There’s largely no vehicular cycling campaigning outside of the U.S. Even racers and ‘serious cyclists’ in The Netherlands look askew at people in the U.S. calling for sharing the road.

  • Gezellig

    http://www.globalsiteplans.com/files/2012/12/elderlybking.png

    If only she had a nice mulitlane high-speed arterial to control the lane in so she could finally be safe and enjoy biking!

  • William cooper

    True that.

  • William cooper

    TAKE THE LANE!
    I’ve been cycling that stretch of road for years without much trouble because I ride in the middle of the middle lane. The soon to happen fatality will be by a confused motorist upon an inexperienced rider. The lawsuit will be a slam dunk. The Traffic Engineer will be looking for another job.

    Bike lanes in general are the most dangerous lanes on the road and I am very selective about which ones I use. Mostly I consider myself another vehicle, which I am, and follow all the traffic laws, from the middle of the lane. SAFETY FIRST!

  • It’s not difficult for a traffic engineer to know if something is a good design or not. Three questions:

    Would I be completely comfortable with my 8-year-old child riding on this by themselves to school?

    My 80-year-old grandmother?

    Can I safely and efficiently ride 25 mph along here without fear of being killed?

  • James

    Just paint a green strip down the middle of this middle lane and add the bike symbol. Easy peasy. That’s the logical – and correct – solution. That middle lane is a clear ‘share the road, cars and cyclists’ lane. No side bike lane where it doesn’t belong. Equal share. Period. Why so hard?

  • Jake Wegmann

    I look at things like this and can only conclude that the traffic engineers responsible for them actively despise cyclists and wish them to be harmed.

  • Davis has the lighting backwards. Dutch research has found that having the center be lighter/brighter than the ends leads to a higher degree of social safety.

  • ClaireB

    Great job Bike East Bay!

  • plantguy

    Maybe they just don’t like bicyclists in Orinda.

  • Craig Sundstrom

    It would make sense if it was 2 lanes into 2 for some extended distance, it makes little sense when it’s 2 into 2 that lasts for 50 feet (as it is now); and whatever the rationale of reducing arterial congestion, 16 years of driving it has taught me it’s a nuisance to negotiate if 2 cars are proximate to each other….I can only imagine what a biker thinks of it.

  • Sean Co

    Green paint on the street is “big changes”? Caltrans struggles with its history of moving cars to its new mission of moving cars and a bus. This double right turn prioritizes cars over the lives of people. I would encourage the Caltrans local assistance person to ride through the intersection on a bike.

  • Gezellig

    Davis also largely follows this example, crucially also providing inviting infrastructure (with lighting!) so crossings can safely be made at any time of the day:

    https://localwiki.org/media/cache/c7/ea/c7eaeaae6ab67b4e43b338b8cf527be3.jpg

    http://www.davisbicycles.org/img/blog/13-03-27-001.jpg

  • If it’s really a “semi-rural community”, then it has no need for a road designed for urban traffic speeds and volumes.

  • It makes sense from a perspective of keeping the congestion off the local street, which is the whole idea being implied behind the extra through/right lane too.

  • The Dutch would try very hard to make the main bikeway somewhere completely separate. If that wasn’t feasible, then they’d likely make an underpass beneath the ramps.

  • Gezellig

    Or a green herring.

  • Prinzrob

    Follow up conversations with residents via the new group Bike Orinda (https://bikeorinda.wordpress.com/) have since made it clear that no, many residents don’t have a problem with green paint and progressive bike infrastructure, and that they in fact prefer it.

  • BBnet3000

    If people are complaining about neighborhood aesthetics being ruined by a bike lane while this autobahn-style road goes through town, its a complete red herring anyway.

  • Erica_JS

    “Orinda is a semi-rural community…” and that delusion right there is your problem, folks. Where does Orinda have any significant agriculture? It is a suburban bedroom community that is too precious to admit that obvious fact, apparently even to the point of compromising road safety.

  • Dave Campbell

    And the Federal Highway Administration just released safety data on the use of green paint to highlight the presence of people bicycling on a street. Here is Bike East Bay’s followup to Orinda about this safety data:

    “The Federal Highway Administration has just released a guide along with safety data on separated bike lanes (i.e. protected bike lanes).
    Separated Bike Lane Planning and Design Guide

    They studied many of these separated facilities around the country. Where green paint was used in conflict zones, the report states:

    “All applications of the green pavement are associated with decreases in average annual total crashes. Green pavement only at conflict points was associated with the greatest decrease in average annual total crashes. This treatment was applied at 13 sites.” Appendix C

    While this report does not purport to be conclusive, for sure, and deals with separated bike lanes, not regular bike lanes and sharrows, it does put local public servants on notice, in my opinion, that their justification for not using green paint in conflict zones must increasingly be justified for other reasons, given this safety data hot off the press. And I don’t mind making it clear that Bike East Bay does not consider neighborhood aesthetics to be a justification outweighing safety of Orinda residents.

  • This design directs bicycle through traffic to be on the wrong side of a turn lane. That is bad design.

    Most “protected bike lanes” share the same design flaw.

  • Roger R.

    Another approach (and probably better). https://youtu.be/Dta9ce2tiQU Let’s learn from the grand masters and admit we don’t know sh*t about building safe roads in the US. The stats show that pretty clearly.

  • Roger R.

    The solution is screaming at them, but you have to care about bikes. You take the stupid and redundant sign “Right Lane Must Turn Right” off the sidewalk and use that space for your bike lane (it’s a wide sidewalk, so you can split it between bikes and peds…there’s also ample room to widen it if you must, by eliminating the on-street bike death lane they’ve painted). The bike lane continues across the ramp and joins the bike lane on the far side of the ramp. Where the bike lane crosses the ramp, you leave the bike lane at curb/sidewalk height, with a fairly steep ramp for cars to cross and descend on the other side–so if a car tries to speed across the bike lane and side/crosswalk, the car will basically destroy its own under carriage. Leading up to that crossing, you pepper the road with rumble strips and/or bumps to remind cars to slow down and a row of shark teeth markings to give bikes and peds clear priority. I would also, probably, add a traffic signal–or have a flashing red signal for cars so they have a final reminder to stop, look for bikes, and proceed. That, I think, is how the Dutch would handle this kind of situation.

  • Craig Sundstrom

    “We are working with Caltrans to eliminate the double onramp at that intersection”

    translation: no one old enough to read this will probably live to see this fixed.

    The (original double onramp) design was idiocy from the start, even for cars: feeding two lanes into a sharp curve, that quickly becomes one lane, then into another, even sharper, turn…we can only imagine what body shop and/or tort lawyers thought up this scheme.

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